Will James Ward rediscover driving purity spending a week with a Mazda MX-5?
Purity is a word that tends to be thrown around loosely by automotive marketers. Pure experience. Pure sensation. Pure engagement. Emotive terminology, yes … but when you think about it there is very little purity in most modern cars. Auto braking, auto parking, self shifting, self steering … fantastic technology and amazing convenience but hardly pure.
Even sports cars, arguably the purest category of all, are not immune to the techno-creep of new features. This is not a slight on technology or modernisation but more a concern that we may have forgotten what driving purity is and even if it is still available today.
A car that has stood as a poster child for purity for the past 25 years is the Mazda MX-5. Small, nimble, light and rear-wheel drive, the little Mazda has always been a fan favourite as an accessible, fun and pure driving machine. The current third-generation Mazda MX-5 was launched in 2005 and is set to be replaced next year with an all-new car, co-developed with Italian marque Alfa Romeo.
Even after a couple of facelifts, the Mazda is showing its age, although it now comes standard with a folding hard-top rather than its previously available fabric item. Would it let us rediscover driving purity while handling (pardon the pun) day-to-day tasks? I was keen to find out.
Initially the Mazda MX-5 feels small. I’m six-foot-two and just looking at the car makes me feel like I will need a shoe horn to get in, but once inside, although snug, it is quite comfy. I will say that a sensible pair of driving shoes should be in order – perhaps Mazda could throw in a nice pair of Todds given our MX-5 Roadster Coupe Sports costs $49,885 plus on-road costs?
Pulling out of Mazda HQ and onto the freeway, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder MX-5 feels a bit underpowered, with only 118kW of power and 188Nm of torque - the latter of which is exceeded by a 2.0-litre Mazda 3 these days. But the top is down, the sun is out and, given the lack of any Bluetooth connectivity, my phone was off – dare I say, as pure an experience behind the wheel as I’ve had in a long time (although being on Melbourne's dreary Monash Freeway kinda soured the moment).
The manual shift in the little Mazda is basically perfect – a short throw and smooth six-speed gate, it’s almost a travesty the car is even offered with a six-speed automatic. Fun is my first thought, but there is a nagging feeling of impracticality that makes me think this is going to be a ‘toy’ car, relegated to weekends rather than daily commutes.
It is important to mention that the first few days with the Mazda MX-5 are bathed glorious Melbourne weather – mid-20s, high scattered cloud and crisp air. Perfect for a convertible.
Miss Five takes to the Mazda instantly, too, and insists on supporting my mantra of Roof Down Unless Raining (RDUR). It turns out the MX-5's low sill height also makes top-down entry possible by climbing over the doors – Dukes of Hazard style – which causes great amusement at school pickup…
A few days in and I'm looking forward to every drive.
I learn how to park again, and rediscover the joy of fitting into small car spaces – an achievement no doubt foreign to my fellow BMW X5 owners. I even make a mix CD to counter the lack of Bluetooth streaming (harder than I remembered, now that my laptop doesn’t even have a CD drive).
Admittedly compact, the boot is surprisingly good. The roof mechanism is totally separate, meaning I never once run out of room during my daily tasks. Fitting shopping, camera gear, school backpacks and a random box of hinges (long story) is almost too easy.
And then it rains. And the car feels the same, but it doesn't.
All of a sudden six-foot-two is too much to fit under the dome. It feels cramped inside with the windscreen even fogging up at one point in the humid air. The small, tight cabin and I are no longer friends and I'm back to thinking the MX-5 is really only suitable as a fine-weather proposition. So tainted, I even drive my X5 to the shops that night because it just seemed easier.
The next day, the sun is out again and all sins are forgotten (I’m very fickle). RDUR rules once again and it's another lidless school run – the Mazda MX-5 is back in favour.
During the week CarAdvice scribe David Zalstein puts the MX-5 through its paces at a high performance driver training day at Sandown Raceway. Even totally stock, the Mazda's balance and sporting ability allow him to run it all day, lap after lap, without even the slightest issue. This is indeed a car of many talents.
Our week with the car ends and I'm sad to hand it back. I had grown fond of the little guy, the Mazda was fun – plain and simple. A kind of fun that is becoming harder and harder to come by … I’d even go so far as to say the car was pure fun.
Can you live with it, though?
Well, look at it this way, if this is to be your only car and you have to compromise pretty much anything, the MX-5 is not for you. But as a second car or if two seats are enough and you can live without navigation, Bluetooth and trip data, and if you can actually park a car without cameras, would join my RDUR club and have a genuine and profound enjoyment of driving … then the Mazda MX-5 is still a purity benchmark, and will provide years of reliable and entertaining service all while putting a massive smile on your face.